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‘I, Party Cup’: Help Grist make a crazy documentary

Let's put on a show!

All right, actually, a video. Online. About disposable red party cups.

That's right: Grist is partnering with filmmaker John Pavlus to produce I, Party Cup -- a documentary that asks: Who made this people's chalice such a ubiquitous part of our disposable world? Why'd they do it? And what can that tell us about the small decisions and little things that shape our world in big ways?

So: We need your help. We're funding this project on Kickstarter -- the innovative platform that's become, in a few brief seasons, a buzzing hive connecting creative artists and people who want to support their work.

Why should you support a film about a cup? I could just tell you. But listen to John, he'll do it better:

This is an experiment for us at Grist. We've cut our nonprofit teeth on our ability to mobilize contributions from supporters like you. But we're new to this crowdfunding thing and this is our first time on Kickstarter.

So give us a hand. Read more about the project. Review the dizzyingly delightful array of rewards we've lined up for our supporters. Become a backer yourself. Then tell your friends.

And wait, there's more: Every dollar you decide to contribute to support this project will be matched in the form of another dollar donated by an anonymous benefactor to support Grist's independent green news and advice.

Many thanks from all of us. Cry havoc, and let loose the Red Party Cups!

Read more: Living

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Is the ‘natural’ label 100 percent misleading?

What do Juicy Juice fruit punch, Tyson chicken, and Nature Valley granola bars have in common? They're all branded with the same mysterious, ubiquitous term: natural.

The natural label's takeover is not just anecdotal. In 2008, Mintel’s Global New Products Database found that “all-natural” was the second most used claim on new American food products. And a recent study by the Shelton Group [PDF], an advertising company focusing on sustainability, found that it's also the most popular. When asked, “Which is the best description to read on a food label?” 25 percent of consumers answered, “100 percent natural.”

Read more: Food

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Utilities beat back community solar bill in California

One of the big pieces of a future that makes sense is an energy system that involves clean power, less waste, more intelligence, and a wider distribution of economic benefits. (Think locally owned solar panels hooked into a smart grid.) I lump all that under the term "distributed energy" and have been making fitful efforts to track some of the battles going on around it.

The latest episode is a sad one. Last year in California, state Sen. Lois Wolk (D) set out to tackle a pretty simple problem: Access to distributed energy (mostly rooftop solar panels) is restricted to those who can afford it and own a suitable roof. About 75 percent of Californians don't fall into that category -- they either rent, don't have the equity, or have a shaded or wrong-facing roof. That's a huge market to be tapped.

So she put forward Senate Bill 843, which would allow customers in the service territories of the state's three big investor-owned utilities -- Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) -- to "subscribe" to distributed energy projects (20 megawatts or less) anywhere in their territories. So, for instance, a condo co-op could get together and invest in a solar project covering a nearby parking garage. Or a congregation could get together and invest in panels for the top of their church. They would sign a contract with a solar developer and pay a monthly fee (wrapped into their power bill) for a portion of the energy produced. Under the legislation, up to 2 gigawatts of power could be financed this way across the state; no state money would be required.

According to a report by Vote Solar [PDF], in the process of adding 2 GW of distributed renewable energy, the program would create 12,000 new jobs, $230 million in state sales tax revenue, and $7.5 billion of economic activity in the state. The bill was backed by a broad coalition that included businesses, schools, nonprofit groups, and the Department of Defense.

Sounds good, right? But it didn't sound good to the big quasi-monopoly utilities, PG&E and SCE (SDG&E supported the bill). Late last week, they led a last-minute flurry of lobbying and killed it.

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Ed Markey, coauthor of big cap-and-trade bill, now lauds Obama’s ‘drill baby drill’ approach

Ed MarkeyClimate hawk Ed Markey defends Obama's all-of-the-above energy strategy. (Photo by Martha Coakley.)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is more passionate about climate action than almost anyone else in Congress. He cosponsored the Democrats' embattled cap-and-trade legislation in 2009, the so-called Waxman-Markey bill. He was the first and only chair of the Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming up until Republicans took control of the House after the 2010 election. And he hasn't let up since losing his chairmanship; he's continued his tenacious fight for clean energy and against fossil fuels.

So it was disorienting to hear him wax enthusiastic about Obama's pro-drilling policies on Wednesday:

Let me say this because I think it’s important: When George Bush left office in January 2009, we as a country were 57 percent dependent on imported oil. Today we are 45 percent dependent on imported oil. That’s Obama drill, baby, drill! Why do I say that? We are at an 18-year high for oil production in the U.S.! Let me say that again: We are at an 18-year high for oil production in the U.S. right now! And we are at an 18-year low with greenhouse gas emissions [thanks to Obama’s push for] natural gas, wind, solar, and new vehicle standards.

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Big Dog touches on big issue: Bill Clinton nods to climate change in convention speech

Bill ClintonBill Clinton tells it. (Photo by Jason Reed / Reuters.)

In a barn burner of a speech Wednesday night, Bill Clinton became the first big-timer at the Democratic convention to make reference to climate change.

Here's what he said on global warming and energy, at least according to a transcript distributed ahead of time. (Clinton did a whole lot of ad-libbing -- his prepared remarks amounted to 3,136 words, while his delivered remarks added up to a whopping 5,895 -- but he pretty much stuck to the book on this part.)

The agreement the [Obama] administration made with management, labor and environmental groups to double car mileage over the next few years is [a] good deal: it will cut your gas bill in half, make us more energy independent, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and add another 500,000 good jobs.

President Obama’s “all of the above” energy plan is helping too -- the boom in oil and gas production combined with greater energy efficiency has driven oil imports to a near-20-year low and natural-gas production to an all-time high.  Renewable energy production has also doubled.

Clinton also whacked the Romney/Ryan budget as bogus and unfair, warning that it would likely chop funding for environmental protection, among many other things. And he delivered some killer lines along the way:

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Organic food might not be more nutritious, but you should eat it anyway

Photo by Maggie McCain.

By now you’ve probably seen the headlines proclaiming that organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional ones. And, if you spring for the organic option at the store, you’ve probably assumed there’s hard evidence of the health benefits – so what gives?

Well, the headlines are all based on a Stanford University meta-analysis that combined data from 237 studies. But just because this mega-study has made such a big media splash doesn’t mean it tells the whole story.

Read more: Food

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The Anthropocene explained, game-show style [AUDIO]

In 2000, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen suggested that humans have had such profound and far-reaching impacts on the planet that we have ushered in a new geologic age – the Age of Man, or, as Crutzen called it, the Anthropocene. The idea has been bouncing around the halls of academia ever since, and in the last few years, it has jumped from the ivory tower into popular literature and a few geek-tastic conversations over beer. The notion that humans now run this joint seems to have struck a chord.

Just getting up to speed? The team from the Generation Anthropocene podcast at Stanford University sat down in the recording studio and tried to explain everything in five short minutes. (It ended up taking seven, but who’s counting?) Just for fun, they did it game-show style.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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How extreme weather supersizes global food price tags

Photo by Oxfam.

Democrats blame record drought. Republicans blame Obama. But one thing both parties agree on is that food prices are going up. In his acceptance speech at last week's GOP convention, Mitt Romney openly mocked tackling climate change as the opposite of helping working families, yet pointed to food prices in his long list of ongoing concerns: "Food prices are higher. Utility bills are higher, and gasoline prices, they've doubled," he claimed.

But Heather Coleman, Oxfam's senior climate policy adviser, sees this (ever-so-thin) overlap of (ever-so-tenuous) agreement as an opportunity. "Those of us who are truly aware of the impacts of climate change find it appalling that climate change could be used as a laugh line," Coleman said in a Skype interview. "[But] there's a lot more that needs to be done and I think we can all come together on this issue of agriculture."

A new Oxfam report released today hopes to close this understanding gap between climate change and global food prices, arguing previous research grossly underestimates future food prices by ignoring the impact of severe weather shocks to the global food system.

The report, "Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices," argues current research paints only some of the picture by relying on steady increase in temperatures and precipitation. To get a more accurate picture, researchers threw down wild cards -- the crazy weather events like droughts, hurricanes, and floods we've come to increasingly expect -- to "stress-test" the system. They've come up with some disturbing numbers.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Climate and energy get no love on day one of Democratic convention

Democratic National Convention on first night(Photo by Chris Keane / Reuters.)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was a lot of energy at the Democratic convention Tuesday night -- just not the kind you can power a house or a car with.

Michelle Obama, Julián Castro, Deval Patrick, and other headliners on the convention's opening night had the audience and the pundits swooning. But none of the major speakers made even a passing reference to climate change or other green issues. The one prime-time speaker who mentioned environmental protection was Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a one-time Republican gone rogue.

I hit up some delegates for their insights on the omission, starting with a Houstonian next to me in the nosebleed section of the Time Warner Cable Arena. Had she heard any commentary on climate and energy? Had I missed something? She looked at me blankly. “No,” she said. “I think that’s scheduled for another night.”

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The futility of climatespotting: No matter what he says, Obama can’t make big moves on climate

After the lurid death of the cap-and-trade bill in Congress, global warming more or less disappeared from the national political landscape. Since there's no climate legislation on the table and none proposed, no ongoing debate on the subject, nothing real to talk about, climate hawks have been reduced to a form of analysis I call "climatespotting." It amounts to counting the number of times the term "climate change" is uttered by a politician (especially Obama) or political organization. It's as though the very term is an endangered bird -- every time it flitters across a screen somewhere, it's met with great excitement.

Climatespotters spend a great deal of energy attempting to interpret the sightings, seeking patterns and larger meanings. Obama didn't mention climate in his State of the Union this year. That meant he'd abandoned all pretense of leadership and was an historic failure. Then in April, in Rolling Stone, he said climate change "will become part of the campaign, and I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we're going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way." That meant he was a climate hero! Then he dropped the subject again for a long time. Historic failure. Then, lately, he's been saying in campaign speeches that "denying climate change won’t make it stop." Hero!

I suspect the Democratic convention will serve as an occasion for a great deal more climatespotting. We know now that the term "climate change" appears 18 times in the Democratic Party Platform (as opposed to once, mockingly, in the Republican Platform). Hero! But according to National Journal, "[i]nterviews with campaign staff and a look at the lineup of convention speakers indicate that climate change won’t be a top-tier issue during the convention." Failure!

I get why this happens, and have been guilty myself, as has Grist, but it's worth remembering that very little hinges on how much Obama and other politicians say the words "climate change." In the long term, obviously, it is important that everyone talk about it more. But these short-term rhetorical fluctuations during the campaign only serve to distract from the more enduring -- and boring, and frustrating, and familiar -- reasons for stasis on climate policy.

Read more: Climate & Energy